Is Guatemala Safe?

| by Jason | 21 Comments » | Central America, Guatemala, Reflections

Is Panajachel safe?

Walking the Streets of Panajachel, Guatemala

I was asked if Guatemala is safe by another traveler while hanging out in a hostel in Argentina.  And let’s be honest, Guatemala is much less developed than Argentina, so it’s a legitimate question.  It’s not the first time we have been asked about traveling in Guatemala, although the questions did usually come up when we were in South America.  You don’t get asked such a question in Central America, mostly because all those countries are relatively the same in terms of safety and infrastructure less Costa Rica.

Safe is an Opinion

This is a very difficult question to answer, not because I think Guatemala is unsafe, but rather because the answer is an opinion.  When speaking about travel safety, you want to hear facts or concrete evidence to squabble your fears.  The only evidence I have is that Aracely and I traveled most of Guatemala for over a month and were never knowingly in danger.  I am not asking you to make a judgement on the safety of traveling in Guatemala based on our experience alone, however all I can share is our experience.

Is Antigua safe?

Walking the Streets of Antigua, Guatemala

Guatemala was the first country we visited on this backpacking journey and the most underdeveloped country I had ever been to.  I should clarify by saying, I have never really traveled much beyond the United States, Spain and Germany.  I was nervous.  We were carrying a few thousand dollars worth of equipment and I not only had to worry about myself, but I felt responsible for Aracely’s safety too.

Is Flores safe?

Outside a Restaurant in Flores, Guatemala near Tikal National Park

Guatemala City

We had heard prior to visiting Guatemala that Guatemala City was very dangerous.  Specifically, bus robberies and bus jackings were common by gangs.  We made no plans to visit the city.  When we arrived there by plane, we hopped on a shuttle bus to Antigua, “Gringo Town.”

While staying in Antigua, we did meet travelers that visited Guatemala City during the day for some sightseeing.  They described it as any other major city, and had no bad experiences.  We also were there when our hostel maid received a phone call that her sister was just hit and mugged while picking up her paycheck in the city.  It’s all about experiences and what you may have heard.  We decided to go bowling in the city one night.  A bunch of us rented a private shuttle bus and all went well.

Antigua

Antigua is the backpacking mecca of Guatemala.  All the amenities you are used to exist here including WiFi, bars, dance clubs, laundry facilities, cafes, fast food chains, restaurants and major banks.  If you can’t find something ask another traveler or the Tourist Police.  I think Antigua is the perfect place to get your feet wet as a backpacker.

Buses Guatemala

Chicken Buses of Antigua, Guatemala

Transportation

Antigua is usually the base camp for visiting other nearby attractions such as Lake Atitlan, Xela, Monterrico Beach, Semuc Champey or even Tikal.  Tourists usually take shuttle buses around the country, but Chicken Buses (old American school buses) are available for the more daring.  More daring in the sense that you really need to speak Spanish, be willing to travel slower and hope that you can figure out how to get from one destination to the other.  The shuttle buses will take you directly to your destination, but it will be cramped.

Travel Guatemala

Backpacks Stored in the Back of the Bus

Volcanoes

There are many volcanoes to climb in Guatemala and some have had a history of bandit attacks.  Bandits are looking to rob you and possibly harm you.  It’s very easy to avoid such treks.  Just listen to the advice from tour agencies and hike volcanoes that are national parks.  The tour agencies are always trying to request the government convert more volcanoes into national parks, but it’s a slow process.  Once a national park, rangers patrol the area for your safety.

Armed Guards

It may take some time getting used to seeing armed guards patrol everything from gas stations to jewelry stores.  These aren’t your everyday mall cops, these guys all carry shotguns.  It’s a bit intimidating, however that is what they are going for.

People

The people of Guatemala are kind, the country is explored by few and the adventures are endless.  You won’t find roped walkways and concrete steps on your hike to Semuc Champey.  You will find yourself saying, “This wouldn’t be legal in my country.”  But, this is what makes it so exciting.

Is Panajachel Safe?

Streets of Panajachel, Guatemala at Lake Atitlan

Be Smart Stay Safe

This article isn’t intended to persuade you to avoid Guatemala City, chicken buses or volcanoes that aren’t national parks.  We are just suggesting alternatives if you want to play it safe.  However, the best way to be safe is to be smart.  Don’t carry things in pockets that can be easily pick pocketed.  Try to make friends and travel in groups.  Always be aware of your surroundings.  These are things that Aracely and I do in every country we visit.

I think Guatemala is special.  I know this because every time Aracely and I are asked about it, we light up and explain how much fun we had while traveling there.

View PHOTOS of Guatemala.

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Written by Jason

Co-founder of TwoBackpackers.com. Jason has been traveling, writing, taking photos and creating adventure videos since 2021, when he departed on his first year long travel backpacking journey. Jason is a full-time blogger and social marketing guru trying to find the way. Visit my website

21 Responses to “Is Guatemala Safe?”

  1. Brendan Kane (REI) says:

    Hey, you guys! I love your website! I was just checking some entry requirements for the countries in Central America and had a question I think you might be able to answer. Some countries (Costa Rica, Belize) require and onward/return ticket to enter. This assumes you’ll be traveling by air. What’s the story with overland travel? Hope you can help! I’ll be hitting the road in the USA (for starters) in less than a month if jury duty (AARRRGGHH!!) doesn’t hold me up. Keep on ramblin’. And thank Aracely for me for the helpful info on hiking! Happy trails!

    • Jason says:

      Hey Brendan! You won’t have to worry about any onward or return tickets when crossing the border by land. We never had to show anything other than our passport. Jury duty, that stinks.

      • Eva says:

        Hi Jason, we crossed into Costa Rica from Panama a few days ago by land at the Sixaola border crossing. They made a fuss and wanted to see plane tickets out of the country. It always depends who you get. There was a girl next to us who apparently got in without that. Our “woman” was more difficult. We were able to get through with a plane ticket that we have for April from Mexico to Boston, which we had to print out at the nearest pharmacy for $3. At no other land border crossing was that the case, and we’ve traveled all the way from Argentina to Central America (mostly by land), even flying into Panama City from Ecuador one-way was no problem at all. Your website is wonderful! Keep up the good work.

        • Jason says:

          Thanks Eva for using us as a resource. I guess you never really know when you are going to have a border problem, but for the most part, I think it’s fairly smooth, as you have experienced. Although sometimes sketchy, crossing a land border is a unique experience.

  2. Claire says:

    I couldn’t agree more with this post-Guatemala is also where I got my feet wet with backpacking, and Antigua is where it all began. We visited most of the countries in Central America on that trip, and Guatemala was by far, my favorite. It just felt like home after awhile. We never felt unsafe-we still talk to this day how anything bad that happened to us on our three month trek, happened in Costa Rica at the very end of our jaunt. That’s when the **** really hit the fan! But that’s for another blog comment….:)

    Guatemala is rugged, and it is beautiful.

  3. it’s hard to give an all-encompassing answer like that , no matter where you visit because everyone’s experience is individual and unique.I’ve heard some horror stories about places that I’ve never had problems in.

  4. Sonya says:

    Enlightening post, thanks for this one! I’m researching the region and considering my travel options.

  5. Ronald says:

    Hello, i was just checking the WEB, and i love to read the stories you guys have written on your blogs. I am Guatemalan and love to travel around the world. I have many friends all over the world whose have been visiting my country and they all loved it. And even better nothing danger has happened to them. I do belive it is dangerous sometimes when talking about buses and walking alone on a bad neighborhood. But tourist are usully safe… Congratulations for the Website. And Yes Pacaya Volcano is erupting now. You should try Acatenango Volcano in your next visit, It is the most beautiful view. (its 3800 meters over the sea level and you can see Fuego’s volcano Lava which is only a few KM distance).

  6. Bryan says:

    I think you’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head with your answer – it depends on your specific experiences in the country. You’ll never find a place that everyone agrees is 100% safe. Our travels took us extensively through the middle east much to the surprise and horror of our friends and family. Our experiences were the exact opposite of their expectations, however. We were met with warmth, friendliness, and gifts everywhere we went. I’m sure that someone somewhere has had a problem, but there is crime in my home town as well.

    Looking forward to more of your stories!

  7. GO! Overseas says:

    Not only is this true for Guatemala, but just about any country you plan on visiting. Even here in the US there are still plenty of areas that travelers should avoid visiting if safety is a concern.

    Staying safe while traveling is just a summation of common sense, experience, and a smidgen of luck. =)

  8. Skott & Shawna says:

    Hey there – my wife and I are leaving for our RTW spring 2021 from Canada, and yes, first stop will indeed by Guatemala!!!!! We are going to be taking a homestay Spanish course at Lake Atitlan, and couldn’t be more thrilled!!! You seem to have a lot of great info on CA, so we will definately be using this blog to help with ideas and inspiration…Cheers!

    Skott and Shawna

    • Jason says:

      We really enjoyed touring Central America and Guatemala was definitely one of our favorites. It’s the best place to learn language as well, since it’s so incredibly cheap. Just don’t go swimming in Lake Atitlan!

  9. I’ve been to Guatemala twice and would have to say that it can be quite safe–if you take some basic precautions. When I went, I had my money in a money belt and didn’t flaunt a fancy camera, etc.

    I wouldn’t say it’s dangerous or a country to avoid, but more a destination where you need to be smart and somewhat vigilant. (To be honest, though, I must say that I did feel a little safer in other countries, including some in the Middle East.)

    I think Guatemala is a wonderful country to visit that is not to be missed. If you love Spanish, indigenous cultures and warm, friendly people, it’s one of the best places to go. I’d go back in a minute!

    • Jason says:

      We would go back in a minute too. It’s one of our favorite small countries with so much to do. And what a great way to start a backpacking trip. Thanks for sharing your comments with us Lisa.

  10. Kristin says:

    Shannon and I went to Guate while looking for fair trade clothing options. We felt really safe in all the backpacker places, as you all did, but for SURE Guate CIty was a nightmare! I stayed with a very wealthy family, and we had armed guards and barbed wire all around…

    But Guatemala is absolutely beautiful! Every place is beautiful. You just gotta be smart.

    • Jason says:

      The most important thing you said is that, “you just gotta be smart.” That plays such a big role in traveling to unfamiliar places. We had heard many bad things about Guatemala City and were careful when visiting, but didn’t spend much time there.

  11. 1dad1kid says:

    Great viewpoint & sound advice. As you point out there are basics you should follow for any country you’re in.

  12. Sarah Smith says:

    I’m traveling to Antigua at the end of June for one month. I will first be arriving in Guat. City and will be at the airport for at least 7 hours until I take an overnight coach to Tikal for three days. Then I’ll return to G. City and on to Antigua. Should I have anything to worry about traveling alone? I’m a 30 year old woman who speaks decent enough Spanish.

    • Jason says:

      I wouldn’t worry Sarah. The airport is fine. The chaos starts when you exit the airport trying to get a ride from the 50 or so taxi drivers that swarm you offering their services. But, if you have already booked a trip on, what sounds like a full size tour bus, you should be absolutely fine. Not sure where you plan to stay near Tikal, but if it’s Flores, it’s beautiful. On Tour Buses, you won’t need to worry about speaking Spanish. Spanish will only be necessary if you plan on using local, non tourist, transportation. Have a great time!

  13. Drew says:

    I heard the same things about Guatemala City that you did, and we took the same sort of precautions, mostly “getting the hell out of there.” by contrast, other than getting stiffed by the taxi driver on the way in to Antigua, I felt as safe there as any place in Central America. We stayed for a week in Xela, and I loved that place as well, though I heard mumblings it wasn’t that safe either.

    But that might have been mumblings about the water quality…

    • Jason says:

      I felt the same way Drew. We continue to hear bad things about Guatemala City today. We never visited Xela, but hear many great things about it. Also a popular place to take Spanish lessons.

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